Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Indignation by Phillip Roth

If you have never read Phillip Roth, his new book, Indignation, is a good place to start. It is relatively short, but long enough to give you an idea of his style. Indignation is the story of Marcus Messner, a young man growing up with the threat of the Korean War hanging over him. Marcus is the son of a New Jersey kosher butcher and his wife who also works in the butcher shop. Marcus’s father grows very paranoid and becomes difficult to live with causing Marcus to transfer to a small college in Ohio. The story focuses on Marcus trying to adapt to this very different environment.

Here Marcus is trying to pysch himself up after an unfortunate meeting with the dean: “Chapel is a discipline, I informed my eyes—eyes that, to my astonishment, looked unbelievably fearful. Treat their chapel as part of the job that you have to do to get through this place as valedictorian—treat it the way you treat eviscerating the chickens.”

A fact about Marcus is revealed fairly early in the novel that caught me by surprise, if you have read other reviews you will know what this is, but I am not going to mention it here. It does alter your reading of this coming of age while adjusting to college novel. Roth does a good job of illustrating what it would be like as a young man to go to college knowing that if you drop out or have to leave for any reason you will be going to war. Here the students at the school are scolded by the president of the college: “Four thousand young men like yourselves, dead, maimed, and wounded; between the time we beat Bowling Green and the time we upset UWV. Do you have any idea how fortunate, how privileged, and how lucky you are to be here watching football games on Saturdays and not there being shot at on Saturdays; and on Mondays, Tuesday, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays as well?”

This book certainly puts a spin on problems college students have these days – at least no one is facing the draft if they fail. My favorite Phillip Roth book and one of my favorite books of all time is The Human Stain, which is also set at a college, but focuses on the problems of an older professor.

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